Holding Up the Big Top | Feature | Chicago Reader

Holding Up the Big Top 

I ran away to join the circus and found the real show behind the scenes.

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By Deirdre Guthrie

Every couple of days I get a call from Manny. If I'm there to get the phone I hear his low voice amid honking car horns or pouring rain, and he tells me they're wading through mud after a solid week of rain in New Jersey, or that he went to a Red Sox game in Boston with "Grandma," the geriatric transvestite clown, who has decided to move back home to his family. Once he told me how Big Steve got hit by lightning while setting up the tent poles and made the five o'clock news.

Our conversations are usually interrupted by the little troll of an operator demanding more money, and more often than not, the line goes dead.

Lately he's been reminding me, "You know, you could come back." I consider the thick stack of unopened bills on the table and the incessant wail of sirens along Kedzie, and I think back on an afternoon two years ago on the Dartmouth campus. Preppy college kids sat under trees with thick books and iced coffees; I stood in frayed shorts, with stubbly legs and armpits, bruised shins, and a freckled, sunburnt face, smiling at a girl's whisper--"She's with that traveling circus."

The Big Apple Circus pitches its tent every winter at Lincoln Center--its fun-house splotches of primary colors, fluttering flags, and shimmering yellow lights lodged amid the opera house and the ballet theater. Two years ago, I stood behind its painted gates, staring up at that billowing tent, overpowered by the smell of cotton candy, as ragtime spilled from speakers hidden in trees.

Inside, shadowy figures slipped in and out of trailers, dodging the ropes, tubes, and cables that covered the ground like writhing worms. An usher in a top hat invited me to sneak in and see a show.

I took him up on it and, dazzled, I told my lover later that night that I was considering abandoning East Village squalor to join the circus. He responded, "But of course."

The Big Apple Circus takes its 120 cast and crew members around the eastern half of the U.S., playing to as many as 500,000 people a year. It started up in 1977 partly in response to the "Greatest Show on Earth" commercialism of Ringling Brothers, intending to be a more traditional, European-style circus stressing art over spectacle. Big Apple, with its intimate, solitary ring, drew inspiration from both Broadway and street performers, the circus as modern-day tribal ritual and tonic. Its founder once said, "Circus, more than any other art form, requires us to be a community. We build our lives around its nomadic existence."

The house manager and former clown I went to see for a job told me I'd be seeing the "working-class" side of circus life--a life the usher in the top hat had warned would consist of eating cookhouse slop, sleeping in walk-in closets, and squatting like trailer-park trash. I signed on for the summer tour, assigned to the box office.

I threw my belongings into garbage bags and took a cab out to the circus's camp in Queens, where I was given the key to my sleeping compartment. I'd be bunking with a souvenir vendor named Tess. (All the names in this story have been changed.) During the idle hours between shows I followed the smell of burnt beans to the blue-tarped tent of the cookhouse. I walked through the narrow alleyways of trailers pitted with workers squatting on metal steps, cracking open bottles of beer and smoking thick, brown blunts. Music pulsed behind curtained doors: rap, punk, folksy blues. Rowdy voices lowered conspicuously as I, a newcomer or "First of May," walked past.

I caught snatches of scenes inside the sleeper compartments: a golden-boy Deadhead peering over a girl's exposed belly examining the tattoo he was drawing on her with his buzzing pen; a Cuban cook, who doubled as a loan shark, licking his thumb and counting out bills to a teenager with a striped Dr. Seuss hat; a chubby wardrobe girl from the Jersey suburbs reading palms in her ritzy trailer, complete with a satellite dish and a laptop.

Inside the cookhouse, an older black man winked from behind the counter as I scooped some food onto my paper plate. His cracked eyeglasses fragmented one eyeball into pieces. As I looked for a seat, a scrawny, unshaven man across the room leered and licked his lips. I stared out the screen door, swallowing spoonfuls of soggy rice drenched in bean juice, until Tess came in and took a seat next to mine.

Tess, a big, boisterous girl with wild, frizzy hair and a massive cast on her leg, came from Oklahoma and liked to show me pictures of her family--lots of kids with home perms and ruddy cheeks.

After a late night in a local bar, I'd hear her heavy breathing and spat curses as she limped up the wooden block steps to our sleeper. Before she went to bed she'd puke in a plastic bag, neatly tie it up, then set it beside her on the floor before she passed out in her bunk.

"This is my best friend's wedding," she said to me one night, pointing to a fuzzy photo. "She married an Indian. Cute, huh?" I nodded. "Yeah, but he beat the shit out of her so they got divorced."

Back home, Tess had worked five years disassembling chickens on the night shift at a meat processing plant, until a bit of bone flew into her eye and she had to go to the hospital to get it taken out. She'd been selling stuffed clowns and T- shirts at Big Apple for three years.

For the most part, the roustabouts, or laborers, didn't mix socially with the performers. It had a lot to do with living quarters. The roustabouts squeezed into trailers along Sleeper Row, sometimes referred to as the "projects," while the performers lived in private trailers lined up in "avenues." Since the performers were mostly Russian, Asian, or European, there were also cultural and language barriers.

Nevertheless cultures inevitably collided as street kids mingled with French ballerinas and Harvard nerds ate in the cookhouse with high school dropouts. I remember one black night when a Russian trapeze artist received word of her younger brother's death in a motorcycle accident. The whole lot gathered respectfully around her trailer. Inside, she insisted I drink shot after tearful shot of vodka in honor of her brother's memory.

Although I lived with the roustabouts in Sleeper Row, I was technically a "box office babe," working in a trailer with retired showgirls. These ladies wore their purple uniforms pressed and tucked in, ordered out rather than partake of cookhouse fare, and, having paid their dues, were exempt from setting up and tearing down the show.

The roustabouts are spread among different crews like electrics, maintenance, tent, ring, and house. During the show they do double duty as vendors, ushers, and stagehands, but their main task involves collapsing and reopening the mammoth big top.

Load outs and load ins require rolling back props, raking garbage, cleaning septic tubes, installing wiring, assembling the magnificent tent, and erecting the bleachers, only to tear it all down again and start from scratch in the next town. Temps--virtually any able-bodied grunt willing to sweat it out for minimum wage--are hired as backup labor but the roustabouts carry most of the load.

All I had to do during moves was set up and take down the box office, which usually took less than an hour.

"You doin' load out with us?" Tess asked me that first day in the cookhouse, her voice garbled with a mouthful of food.

"Don't have workers' comp like you guys," I answered. (Over the next six months I'd see a fair number of kids with sprained arms, broken legs, and bashed-in shoulders dragged to the ER after load out and my job description didn't cover such injuries.)

Tess smirked and looked knowingly across the table at Helen, a beautiful 19-year-old horse groom from Denmark. Helen, who had a way of breathing out words with a sultriness that always made me sleepy, had a reckless habit of ordering rounds of "screaming orgasm" cocktails and falling in love with strangers in neighborhood bars. She lived in the last compartment of our trailer, and Tess and I often felt her passion vibrate through our sleeper late at night.

"Oh, leave her alone, Tess," Helen said. "You know you wouldn't do it if you didn't have to."

One day in Boston I was on a food run when I ran into Manny, a husky 22-year-old from the Manhattan projects. I had an armful of chocolate cake and greasy mozzarella sticks.

"Need some help?" he said, eyeing the precariously balanced lunch. I shook my head and plowed along but heard him mumble, "Looks like life as a box office babe is pretty rough."

Loading out was the litmus test for respect, and I'd get little until I passed.

"Those roustabouts think it's a regular cakewalk being a showgirl," explained Mariah, as I doled out the steamy food. Mariah was a former foot-juggler from Holland who giggled so much she always seemed on the verge of hysteria. "I wonder if they've ever foot-juggled with two sprained ankles," she snorted.

At 40, most showgirls retire, fed up with competing against younger women in bikini thongs. Some go back home to Europe. The ones who have husbands working in the circus stay on the lot selling tickets. They love to gossip, about how one showgirl stitched falsies made from egg cartons into her costume, about how another looked like "the Avon lady blew up in her face," about how a new girl could only claim a two-bit topless hula-hoop act on her resume. But for all their cattiness, these women are the true survivors of the showgirl circuit.

Selina, a Mexican mother of three who grew up in the circus performing in a family trapeze act, often told me as we doled out tickets of the pressures she felt growing up as a performer. She used to starve herself so she'd mirror her sister's physique. She grew to hate the exposing glare of the spotlight, where a smile had to be permanently painted on her face. The insides of her arms were scarred by the red lick of the whip her first husband used to crack to snatch the cigarette out of her mouth. Occasionally she'd been nicked during his knife-throwing act. She once climbed the long expanse of netting known as the "web" with two twisted ankles by rubbing on some Icy Hot gel, wrapping them up, and taking a few aspirin.

Mariah showed me scars up and down her legs from "snakebites," the cuts that result from a run-in with a tent stake. And Renee, who had decorated her husband's lion act at Ringling Brothers, underwent surgery to fix the damage years of spike heels had done to her feet.

But the toughest and most respected showgirl on the lot was Reyna, who trained and showed the Arabian horses. A muscular, wiry woman with a nervous twitch in her eye, she came up to our windows to cash her paycheck or talk shop with Lisa, another horse trainer: "Went driving the other day and saw a mini up the road you might want to check out. Think it has balls--you need a male?"

Once, during a show I saw her get kicked in the head by her horse so hard she fell to the ground. The wardrobe girl ran up and asked if she was all right and she snapped back, "Of course I'm all right," spit, and climbed up on the horse to re-enter the ring with a thick line of blood oozing down her forehead. Circus legend had it she gave birth to her second child hours after performing in a show.

On the darker side were whispered tales of fallen stars--beautiful, daring showgirls who'd been stepped on one too many times by an elephant, crippled after losing balance on the high wire, or forgotten simply because they'd been dumped by their male counterparts.

Isabel, who married a crew chief, was weary of the rigid discipline and physical injury she'd experienced, first as an Olympic gymnast representing Bulgaria, and later as a circus performer in the States. "When I have kids," she said sardonically, "I want them to be lazy and fat."

But the babes also described the adrenaline rush and ego glow that filled them long after the spotlight dimmed. Even Kyla returned after a terrible wreck, her body tense but healed, to spin her umbrella again.

On an icy night driving to Brooklyn, Kyla's trailer jackknifed off the highway. The bottomed-out horror I felt driving past the crunched-up wreck came from knowing her newborn baby was in the back. Though the baby broke several ribs, she recovered, and Kyla was rehabbed in time to walk the wire again for the last show of the tour. She spun her umbrella, lit up with smoky blue light like a Chinese lantern, while the roustabouts stood up one by one to applaud.

For all the misery, the showgirls said it was a hard life to leave. Some had tried to settle down and become "townies" with nine-to-five jobs and mortgage payments. But, as Tina, a former bareback rider whose husband had "caught the guy from the flying trapeze" said, "We got bored, restless, that itch to move on the road. I s'pose it's an addiction."

I added up the day's sales and put the cash in the safe. "Don't let those roustabouts trick you into doing load out, girl," Mariah advised as I left. I waited for that familiar explosion of laughter before heading outside.

The last show ended around seven, and the audience hadn't even emptied the tent when roaring Caterpillars and shouting workers descended upon them, sprawling across the lot to uproot stakes and fencing. I heard Manny barking out orders to his crew.

Lenny, a scarecrow of a man with a bad knee saw me standing there befuddled amid the chaos and asked for my help rolling up the empty waste tubing attached to each trailer. He offered up his gloves and we pressed out the tubes one by one, watching the remaining sewage ooze into the cracked pavement--its stench filling the air.

Before long I was gathering tangled cable sticky with Coke from under the bleachers and untying the cord that strung the tent to the poles. Tess and I swept the ring, picked up and sorted the jacks, and loaded the heavy seat boards into the truck. By this time I was breathing heavily, damp with sweat, itching from the coat of grime on my arms and face.

It wasn't until 3:30 in the morning that we finally started to roll up the tent. We formed a line, unsnapped the harnesses, threw the thick ropes up onto the six slick tent sections, and folded the heavy material inward with weary arms until it enveloped the center pole like a foldout Christmas tree.

It had become a humid, muggy morning. Manny approached me to shake my hand and asked for a back rub. I pushed my grimy fingers into the contorted muscles of his back and arms. Everyone snacked in silence on cold cuts and candy bars. Manny's muffled groans were the only sound.

"You should take it easy," I said as he flinched in pain.

He just smiled and told me that the day before he'd talked to an old man who'd told him that back in the day, elephants used to do the heavy labor, lifting the stringers and rolling up the tent with stiff trunks.

"Guess you're the modern-day elephant," I teased, surveying the vast, empty stretch of asphalt before me, the space where the circus universe had disintegrated in a matter of hours.

The roustabouts would continue working until sunup, get a few hours sleep in the van driving to the next town, then begin loading in for the show that night.

When I asked Manny why he stayed while most of us eventually migrated back to towns and cities, he just shrugged and smiled a slow, sideways smile.

Back home, when Manny was 12, he'd been hired to work in a crackhouse for $50 an hour to make sure the junkies didn't steal anything. When he was 13, he saw a kid get shot five times, and yet "keep running around like a chicken with his guts spillin' all out." He started with Big Apple at 18 as a grunt laborer and now, at 22, he was a high-level crew boss. He'd get a nervous stomach the night before load out, worrying about how well his crew would perform. Afterward, he'd sit up in the bleachers, alone, utterly spent, in the stone, churchlike stillness of the big top.

Some early mornings, when the lingering smells of musky elephant and rotting hot dog mingled in the chilled air, I would watch the white Arabian horses snorting and rolling in the sawdust ring. Reyna would be lightly throwing the whip with Helen nearby, straddling a bleacher, waving her arms at a stallion galloping toward the exit.

Chris, a security guard from Queens, once kept me company as his night shift drew to a close. He asked what a nice girl like me was doing in a place like this, and warned me the circus was a dead end, a wasteland for burned-out hippies and rejects. He'd been working circus lots for five years and told me he'd seen enough to conclude that roustabouts were "a bunch of degenerates."

Indeed many of them had greasy hands, dirty tattoos, and deadened eyes; most were runaways for whom shady pasts were a staple and dysfunctional families a given. The federal marshals took away George--sweet old epileptic George who spun the cotton candy and was apparently wanted in Boston for drug trafficking. Before that, Nate from maintenance had read about his family in the tabloids. They'd been connected to some "bad Sicilian business" back on Staten Island. And most of the kids in Sleeper Row were perpetually stoned, passing around French novels and Dennis Hopper videos like they were hand-rolled cigarettes. But in the end they were what kept the show going night after night. Frankly, I told Chris, I'd seen more degeneracy back in Manhattan.

In Charlestown, Rhode Island, the radio warned that a tornado had hit five miles down the road with winds clocked at 73 miles per hour. Word was the tent could withstand up to 75. We had a full house, and the roustabouts had been working all day to secure the tent, but the anxiety was palpable.

I left the box office to get some coffee, ran past the roaring hum of the generator in the pelting rain, dodged through Sleeper Row, and shot up the cookhouse steps. Inside, alone, sat Joe.

Joe was the son of circus roustabouts. His knuckles were swollen and blue; his face was scarred and weather-beaten. He kept himself satisfied with alcohol, local prostitutes, and bar fights. Everyone had warned me he could get nasty when he was drunk and might ask me to play "hide the sausage," but he never did. Now, with a windy Armageddon pounding at the door, Joe sat watching America's Most Wanted and drinking tequila and Coronas with lime.

He greeted me with his trademark high-pitched giggle, a sound that didn't suit his big frame. "You're looking lovely tonight," he slurred.

I was soaked to the skin. "I heard the tent might not hold. What do you think?"

"Nah," he said, "Storm'll blow over. You can tell by the way the clouds are rolling." He sucked on his lime. "No, I've seen tents chewed up before, but this one will hold. We've tied her down good. Don't you worry." And he turned back to the TV screen mottled with static.

"Can you believe this shit?" he said, pointing at the screen. "Show's about this granny who seduces rich Texan widowers and then chops 'em up to collect." Then, looking at me with a toothless grin, "What kind of craziness is going on in this world?"

Joe was right. The winds rolled by us with the clouds, and the big top held.

In her book Night After Night, about the Big Apple Circus, Diana Starr Cooper describes it as "a gathering of artists whose job is to fight despair." It was a battle that seemed to inspire the roustabouts. One night, around a bonfire on the Long Island sand, they put on a cabaret: a little stand-up, some guitar and sax, and songs.

Ron, a guy on electrics crew, read a poem that stayed with me long after the fire was doused. It was written by an old circus hack: Henry Ringling North.

"The circus," Ron began, with a ringmaster's strut and bellow, "is a jealous wench."

His audience responded with knowing snickers. "Indeed, that is an understatement," he continued. "She is a ravening hag who sucks your vitality as a vampire drinks blood, who kills the brightest stars in her crown and who will allow no private life to those who serve her." Everyone fell silent.

"Wrecking their homes, ruining their bodies, and destroying the happiness of their loved ones by her insatiable demands. She is all of these things, and yet," he paused dramatically, "I love her as I love nothing else on earth." When he was finished, he knelt in the cold sand, and the roustabouts hooted like banshees, raising their bottles in the air.

On the last stop of the tour, in Shelburne, Vermont, I went to a pub with Helen. We spent most of the night spouting stories to fascinated locals. Tonight she was the trapeze artist, and I was the human cannonball. Afterward, a middle-aged attorney, who'd been listening over his scotch at the other side of the bar, toasted us for having the "guts" to run away.

"Run away from what?" I asked, curious.

"You know, just up and leave everything behind, all attachments, all security," he answered.

I wanted to laugh. But then Helen whispered hotly, like steam in my ear: "To runaways!" And I took the screaming orgasm she set before me and swallowed it whole.

I'm late meeting Manny at Midway, and sweating from my bouncing run along the moving sidewalks. The circus is coming to town, and he's flown ahead to meet me. They'll be at Arlington racetrack till June 14, two weeks from now. I can feel my pulse throb in my neck as I scan the crowd, finally spotting him waiting calmly by the gate, staring my way. As I approach he raises an arm, slowly unfolding the fingers of his fist to reveal a tin ring set with a green bead with a tiny daisy painted on it.

"I bought it for 25 cents from a little girl who set up a stand outside the show," he says softly.

I slip the ring on my finger and rotate the band of my bubblegum treasure and finally ask him, "Where are you going next?"

"Cleveland," he says, his swollen, chafed, meaty hands now stuffed in the pockets of his jeans.

"You think you'll need a ride?" I ask, and he meets my eyes with that slow, sideways smile.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Randy Tunnell.

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